Ndumiso Mdayi kaGaba
“The oft-repeated or restored character of accounts [of violence] and our distance from them are signaled by the theatrical language usually resorted to in describing these instances—and especially because they reinforce the spectacular character of black suffering.” – Saidiya Hartman
On 18 August 2018, a student from my campus jumped off a building from a nearby mall, into the water and drowned. This was caught on camera and spectators, in the background, can be heard expressing a coalescence of shock, awe and excitement. Notwithstanding, generally, the violence exerted on black bodies, in its theatrical nature, is spectacular and numbing. In this piece, I want to discuss the ‘spectacularity’ of this violence and what makes it spectacular, while putting emphasis on and using the suicide of the aforementioned student as a primary point of reference.
In her book Scenes of Subjection, Saidiya Hartman mentions the story of Frederick Douglass and how he was introduced to the violence of slavery. Douglass himself recounts the instance of the beating of his aunt, Hester, and correlates it to the expression: “I was born.” It was in this moment Douglass was awakened to the reality of slavery, as violence was necessary a tool in the making of the slave. Douglass was allowed to spectate while his aunt was the spectacle. Douglass and his aunt shared a common reality of lack and powerlessness, as objects whose position was beneath and subordinate to the one of their masters. Fred Moten, in his book In the Break, helps us see the alternating positons of spectator and spectacle. Because of the shared reality, Douglass was not going to be spectator all his ‘life’ as a slave, but was eventually going to become a vessel where violence is performed, a spectacle.
In 2012, state police opened fire and murdered 34 to 47 black workers outside Lonmin Mine in Marikana. In 2016, of the 1 300 mental health patients who were relocated to unlicensed NGOs by order of the Gauteng Department of Health, 144 died and 62 are still to be accounted for. On 23 March 2018, in France, an Islamist terrorist murdered four people to death, injuring 15; and this brought the world to a standstill. In both former cases, however, the accounts of violence and death, instead of agitating or inciting indignation collectively in black people, are rather numbing and awake us to the reality of their powerlessness, ideologically and materially. In the same breath, instead of arousing the conscience of the western world, the latter remained distanced and unaffected.
The jumping of one black person from a building, into the water and drowning to death, reads cinematic, because of the “theatrical language resorted to in describing [such] instances” (Hartman). Moreover, this is also a function of the normalisation of black death and suffering in the world, which immures black people to the pain. We have repeatedly watched many black people die and continue to not only to watch, thereafter, but circulate those same videos that captured the moments, those moments of death. “To be black [in the world] is to exist in haunting, mundane proximity to death at all moments”, (Hannah Giorgis). But black death, in its spectacularity, excites, hence there has been multiple events captured and turned into western movies and documentaries, for money and to reinforce in the minds of the audience a character of black suffering that is distancing and alienating to the same people who are affected.
In passing, I want to address the class contradictions in black communities. It was Frantz Fanon’s contact with the other world, the white world, that brought him to realise that, while he was in Martinique, he was in fact ‘an object in the midst of other objects’ with no distinctive occasion, but mere internal conflicts. It is clear, whether or not the motive was to accumulate and privatise resources, white people, in making of the world and as a basis, structured the world to create out of the colonised a people who are not people, a people subordinate to them and things less than humans. There is, therefore, a constant dialectic between the colonised (blacks) and the world, because their “customs and the sources on which they were based were wiped out because they were in conflict with a civilization that [they] did not know and that imposed itself on [them]”, (Fanon).
However, when taking into account the aforementioned tragedies of the murders of mine workers and mentally ill people, wealthy black people like Ramaphosa are implicated. Black Consciousness, as a school of thought and philosophy, mostly conceptualised by Steve Biko, does not in any way endorse or defend such bourgeois blacks, on the basis of their race or skin colour. Instead, it is opposed to their materialistic values or conservative attitudes, because they are not conceivably benefitting black people (as a whole) and advancing their struggle, out of their situation of lack and broken relations.
In closing, Wanelisa Xaba, iterating Fanon on the violence performed on black bodies, asserts: “violence is inextricably linked to who society deems as human; that is to say, the structural violence inflicted on poor black landless people in South Africa is not considered violence because black people are not seen as human. The dehumanising poverty (no sanitation, unemployment, dysfunctional health care, structural racism, a militarised African National Congress State, unequal basic education and neoliberal, exclusionary higher education) is not considered violence because those affected by it exist as subhuman or ‘appendages’ under white supremacy (Biko).”